Homeless and cold, thousands of people will weather the holidays with old man winter this month in the District’s streets, shelters and parks. For those men and women who are alone, bundled in blankets and heavy coats, Christmas night will pass as most do: struggling to stay warm.
But for several children who are homeless or living in shelters themselves, the night will pass with warm thoughts, dreams of glittering trees and presents, and hopes that St. Nicholas soon will be there.
Dreams of St. Nick
When Santa visits 9-year-old Bria at the Spring Road Family Shelter, he will find cookies and milk waiting, just like she puts out for him every year.
But this time, “Santa will just have to come to the front door,” she says, because the shelter has no chimney and space is cramped. “If Santa tries to come down a chimney he’s going to get lost,” she adds. But she’s not worried about him having difficulty finding her at the shelter. Santa has special ways of figuring out these things, she confides.
Decked in tiger-striped earmuffs, Bria recites a lofty wish list: a bike, a computer, a
McDonald’s McFlurry maker, a pet dog and a baby doll stroller. But she also knows that Christmas is more than receiving presents. Giving to others and being with her family are important too. The best part about the holidays, she says, is spending time with her mother, father and five brothers and sisters.
Khadija, 7, lives at the Temporary Living Center on Park Road, transitional apartment-style housing for families. But this year her family plans to celebrate Christmas at her aunt’s house, she says, because her mother does not have the time or space to put up a tree and decorations.
“My favorite part about the holidays is that we get presents,” she says, grinning to reveal two missing front teeth. “But it’s also special because we celebrate Jesus’ birthday.”
Still, Khadija barely contains her excitement as she thinks about what she might find this year under the Christmas tree. What has she asked Santa to bring her? Just a few “small” presents: jewelry, a make-up set, a Barbie book bag, clothes and black boots.
Not every child believes in Santa. J.R. ,who lives with his father at the Park Road shelter, says that Santa is not real. Instead, J.R. very practically expects that his family or staff at Project Northstar, the tutoring program for homeless children that he goes to once a week, will buy his presents.
Such practicality has not tempered this 7-year-old’s enthusiasm for Christmas and gift receiving, though. “I’m looking forward to Christmas because you get lots of toys,” J.R. says, his sentences punctuated every-so-often with “dawg.”
And his wish list is both expensive and expansive. At the top of the list: a PlayStation 2, a dirt bike, wrestling action figures and a wrestling ring, new shoes, and new clothes.
In contrast, the reality of living on the streets and having to rely on others’ generosity tempers most adults’ musings about the holidays.
Being homeless, “takes a lot away from your ego, your pride,” says Phoenix, 52, who has lived in an abandoned house for the past five months.
Last year, Phoenix was working in the communications industry in North Carolina, earning $85,000 a year. Layoffs forced him into early retirement, and some bad luck mixed with some bad choices have him living homeless in D.C. until he can get his life back together.
He considers himself lucky because he knows he has a way out once his early retirement package kicks in. But he’s always been self-reliant – was steadily employed since 19 and never without a job until last year – and having to depend on others for food and clothing is hard, he says.
So hard, he has not told his three adult children that he is in D.C. and homeless. “When I think about Christmas, I think about my children,” Phoenix says. “But this year,” his comment trails off as he looks down at the uneaten pancakes left on his plate. He regularly eats breakfast at Miriam’s Kitchen.
“Let’s just say that this holiday, I’ll be with myself and getting my head together.”
On Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanza, New Years Day or any other given day of the year, best estimates report that approximately 6,840 homeless people reside in D.C.’s emergency and transitional shelters, on the streets or in makeshift and illegal housing, according to The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. These numbers, when compared to the cities total population, are more than twice the rate of other large cities in the United States.
Giving and Remembering
Unlike the other times of the year, the holiday season, is when homeless people see others’ generosity in abundance.
“I always know it’s Christmas when churches start coming to the streets and people start finding us in the parks just to help us,” says Fred, whose full salt-and pepper beard, twinkling blue eyes and robust cheeks could allow him to pass as Santa Claus himself.
One night in early December, he was awoken at 1 a.m. by a group of people from a nearby church asking him if he wanted soup or hot chocolate, he says, shaking his head in bewilderment.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I had to be at work first thing in the morning and needed my sleep,” he chortles.
Fred’s been homeless in D.C. for five years now, and Christmas has become just another day for him. “Actually, it’s a bit harder than most days,” he says, “because nothing is open so you have nowhere to go expect places where they are providing services for us.”
He works fairly regularly (about 15 days a month) through a temporary employment agency, earning between $50 and $60 a day, he says. But he doesn’t earn enough money to pay the District’s steep rents.
“I miss having a home,” Fred says. “Christmas was always about going to my aunt’s house and my grandma’s. It was about being with family.”
Some of his best Christmas memories are from when he was a child, opening all the gifts and eating the Christmas turkey and ham and mashed potatoes. “I couldn’t wait ‘till Christmas day, I was so impatient,” he says.
But the holiday no longer holds that special sense of expectation for him. His grandmother, aunt and mother are deceased, and Fred is alone and resigned to the here-and-now of being homeless.
Does he miss those childhood feelings of joy, hope and anticipation? Yes and no, he says.
“I do have hope that things will get better,” he says. Fred has applied for affordable housing and is looking for a permanent job in the retail industry. “But that has nothing to do with the joy of Christmas.”
“As far as the spirit of Christmas goes,” he says. “That’s best to leave it in his childhood and to wish for the spirit in other children.”
Laura Thompson contributed to this article